The 200 block of Bedford Avenue, in Brooklyn, New York is great for Pokémon Go: There are five Pokéstops nearby and a gym a few blocks away. In real life, there’s a movie theater and public swimming pool nearby, too. Kids leaving the pool — one of the neighborhood’s Pokéstops — are only about a block from L.A. Burrito, which serves quick burritos and Pokéballs. The block’s also adjacent to the home address of a registered sex offender, convicted of first-degree sexual abuse in 1997.
Both New York and Los Angeles are major metropolitan areas with high concentrations of sex offenders, who are prohibited by state laws from living within certain distances from schools, but in densely-populated cities, they’re still nearby. Children in cities and rural areas alike often find safety in routine when they travel usual paths between activities; they’re usually surrounded by peers and community members. Earlier this month, in San Luis Obispo, California, a sober living facility that houses sex offenders was found to be a designated Pokestop. “Pokemon game may lead local players to home for sex offenders,” reads the headline on KSBY.com.
Augmented reality gaming has already proved that it leads people to unexpected places, and children playing the game may find themselves far off the beaten path searching for Pokéstops, which have not been designated with the safety of unaccompanied minors in mind — in cities and the suburbs.
When Niantic released Pokémon Go in the United States on July 6, it copied most of the location data — where Pokéstops and Gyms appeared — on the framework of its previous augmented reality game, Ingress. Ingress’s online map offers a mirror image of the real world, drawn from Google Maps data, in which players interact with location-based objectives. Collecting intelligence usually required players to visit areas with high cell phone data traffic. Control points (like safe houses or bases) were distributed randomly, and players battled for control of them or picked up supplies. Basically, it was like Pokémon Go without the Pokémon.
When you load up the app, Niantic offers this safety warning: “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.” The company’s various social media accounts haven’t offered additional warnings, leaving that annoying duty mostly to local police departments who have had their hands full telling players not to wander into police stations or play while driving (and then crash into a police car). For better or worse, Pokémon Go is a truly open-world game — except, notably, at Fukushima.
The problem is, Ingress and Pokémon Go have very different intended audiences. While the latter has attracted a surprisingly diverse player base by capitalizing on frenetic press coverage and millennial nostalgia, the Pokémon franchise is, at its core, marketed to kids. Ingress attracted an older, niche audience with its themes of spies and subterfuge, and failed to catch on in the same way Pokémon Go has. Pokemon Go’s current playerbase is overwhelmingly young adults: a recent study of 1,000 players by mobile research firm MFour shows that 83 percent are between the ages of 18 and 35, with 14 percent over 35 and only 2 percent between 13 and 15. But those numbers are deceiving. The 13 to 15 age group was the lowest surveyed, and other surveys don’t have any statistics on how many minors are using the app.
School is out in New York City, and in the past weeks, children moving to and from summer camps or activities have been playing the game while walking. Younger children sit outside laundromats playing the game while their parents are at work. In the United States, 72 percent of children under the age of eight have access to a smartphone or tablet — so we can reasonably infer that there are a lot of kids playing the game. Worldwide, it has been downloaded an astounding 75 million times.
Pokmon Go exists in an augmented reality format, which layers a players experience on real world travel and achievement. Previously, smartphone games have been a cure-all method to get a child to sit still, absorbing their attention, but Pokémon Go combines the distraction of a screen with an addictive exploration mechanic (hatching eggs, catching Pokémon, hitting Pokéstops). It’s all too easy to imagine a child wandering far from his or her beaten path or designated play area in search of a rare Pokemon or a gym battle. And in New York City, Pokéstops are ubiquitous, but so are sex offenders.
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just a few blocks away from the a burrito stop-and-Pokéstop where the sexual abuse convict lives, is another offender’s residence (for the purposes of this story, no offenders will be named, nor will exact addresses be given.) The surrounding blocks have no fewer than five Pokstops; some, like the community garden on South 2nd Street, are easily visible from an offender’s address.
The offender on that street is classified as a “moderate risk” — he was convicted of having a sexual relationship with a minor under the age of 17 at over the age of 21 — but other locations have far greater threats. Further South, in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, a violent sex offender lives within 500 feet of three Pokéstops. The man served between 5 and 15 years in a State prison for kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, and multiple sex crimes performed on a female child who he “immediately and physically overpowered” using a knife or cutting instrument.
Los Angeles, too, has plenty of offenders. In the Koreatown and Little Bangladesh neighborhoods, there are half a dozen gyms and a myriad of Pokéstops around, some in close proximity to violent offenders.
This is a common pattern — often, there are slightly higher concentrations of sex offenders in minority neighborhoods (because of higher population densities, not some racial factor), and a lower concentration of Pokéstops and Gyms, forcing prospective players to range further from of the beaten path. On West 6th Street and Gramercy Place in Manhattan, there’s a sex offender convicted of possession of lewd materials (e.g., child pornography); his address is close to two different Pokéstops and within a few blocks of several others:
Below is a series of screenshots of a the area in game; the locations aren’t exact, but there are several other sex offenders on several of the adjacent blocks, convicted of crimes ranging from lewd and lascivious acts to forced penetration with a foreign object.
Niantic did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether or not it had taken sex offender database information into account when planning either Ingress or Pokémon Go.
While the company does seem to realize that the experience they have created poses some hazards for gamers, it’s clear that augmented reality is a new societal trend that parents and designers alike may have underestimated. Designing a video game that forces players to interact with the outside world is a massive achievement in an industry plagued by the stigma of sloth and social withdrawal, developers have a responsibility to properly care for the demographic of gamers they turn out into the world.
Pokémon Go is not a babysitter, nor it it a demon leading children to a traumatic fate. But it does change the landscape of how children and adults alike interact with their world, while police forces and proper safety guidelines struggle to catch up.
Matt Kim contributed reporting from Los Angeles.